Super Size My Seminar

I’m wrapping up the 2011-12 term this month. One aspect that’s felt luxurious has been my seminar. It’s both been a good class and a small class with under twenty in either term. (Pro tip to faculty wanting to shrink their course sizes: schedule your class for 8:30 on Friday and then have the registrar screw up the listing to suggest it starts at 8:00. You’ll scare all but the determined or the desperate away!)

Next year, the picture is bleak. Due to budget constraints and sabbaticals, we’re offering very few senior seminars: fifteen credits worth (or 2.5 full year options). Students with a concentration in history have to take twelve credits of seminars to graduate while majors only need six. Theoretically, fifteen credits should be enough but not when you factor in the large number of majors and concentrations history attracts. And I don’t even get the scary Friday morning time-slot for my seniors. This fall and winter, I meet my seniors on Wednesday mornings. (Grad students? Prepare for a Friday morning fun-fest!)

The crisis of classes and credits has become personal for me in the looming fall and winter terms. I’m teaching six of those fifteen credits offered in our program: seminars on Tudor Britain in the fall and Stuart Britain in the winter. Having crunched the numbers and chatted with others in the department, I safely expect to see a record-setting enrollment of more than 38, especially since some majors have ambitions of finishing up their 2012-13 coursework in the fall term by taking my seminar in conjunction with another scheduled for the fall. In the winter term, mine will be the only senior seminar into which a student in need of seminar credits can enroll (the other six credits on offer is a fall/winter course): also an enrollment booster!


I’ve told our admin that my ‘hard cap’ is 44. There are twelve weeks in the term and every student needs to make one in-class presentation the way that I run seminars. (I’m not willing to negotiate on the presentation component: I don’t consider it a seminar without students having to prepare and make a formal in-class presentation.) Week one won’t count for those purposes since I can’t get students ready to present before class has begun. So there are only eleven weeks left and I know that I can’t run a good discussion session in a three-hour class and take time for more than four oral presentations. The math is then simple: 4*11=44.


Now I have to come up with 44 presentation topics stretching from Henry VII’s reign through Elizabeth’s (with forays into Scots and Irish history along the way). I’ve used biographies before: these are very easy to generate as topics but also quite easy for students to plagiarize. Nothing demoralizes an educator quite like listening to your senior students read the Wikipedia entry word for word! I don’t want to use articles or monographs for presentation topics: these tend to turn into snooze-fests as most students do little more than summarize the contents.

I’ve toyed with the thought of having the in-class presentations be on historical events but I’m a bit staggered at the thought of coming up with so many topics that I can also equally and usefully distribute across the 1485-1603 period so that we’re not having someone present on an early Tudor topic when the discussion’s all about late Tudor wars! So wish me luck or give me suggestions of the almost four dozen topics I’ll need to nail down for Tudor history presentations before the syllabus goes to the press in late August. Please?



Filed under history, teaching

9 responses to “Super Size My Seminar

  1. Cyn

    Ok, can you come up with 11 general topics and then ask the presenting students to come up with something *related but different* for that week?

    For example:
    Topic X: Student 1 does historical, Student 2 does economical, Student 3 does social, Student 4 does aesthetics?
    Topic Y: Student 1 does context, Student 2 does highlights, Student 3 does important people in event, Student 4 does response to event by community or writers?

    (I’m not sure if the seminars are literary or what, so forgive my random categories above but hope they make sense as examples…could be adopted as necessary for pedagogical goals.)

    • Cyn

      Oh wait, you posted under history. So let’s pretend I gave good relevant categories, please…

      • J Liedl

        Thanks! That’s an interesting idea and not at all bad in categories. My worry is that students will have a tough time coming up with useful elements – but maybe I could model it for the first two weeks (and give those students who opt for an early presentation an incentive).

  2. Cyn

    ps: 44 is CrAzY supersized. Hugs.

    • J Liedl

      Aw, thanks! Every time that I think we have a handle on things, enrollments skyrocket in one way or another. . . .

  3. I’d do a riff on Cyn’s stuff: provide a list of topics by week, and make the students come up with the specifics: social, cultural, artistic, econ, politics (it’s the Tudors, for heaven’s sake!) and they have to clear it with you. So that every topic has the 4 or five aspects addressed. Or have them do some historiography on those topics.

    And nail ’em if they plagiarize. First, because they learn that it is wrong, and second, I tell mine that they only get credit for their own work; if they use someone else’s work, I have none of their own to assess, so they get a zero.

    • J Liedl

      Thanks for the feedback and food for thought: historiography is something that I love and love to teach, so that’s a fun element (from my perspective, at least!) to add into the list of possibilities.

      I agree with you on plagiarism: when students don’t do the work of synthesizing and writing, they’ve failed utterly! I nail students for the plagiarized seminar presentations but privately, even as I read along with the student in real time (benefits of marking their presentations on my laptop or netbook). It’s been suggested that I should start to “read aloud” with them, but I’m loathe to publicly humiliate anyone, even a plagiarist. I do open every senior seminar with a mention of past plagiarism (and how it not only earns a zero on the assignment but also is reported to the chair and dean as academic dishonesty which can trigger, for repeat offenders, failure in the course or suspension from the U).

  4. Cyn

    Plagiarism = grrrr.

    • J Liedl

      Oh, yeah. Plagiarism is so distressing, especially when it’s for a presentation where I encourage them to consult our half-dozen scholarly reference sources that would give them more than enough information to do the work well. But that’s both scary and time-consuming, at least in the eyes of a few!